On Zarela's Mind: A Spectacular Coffee Crunch Cake

I don’t like to bake. Maybe I enjoy folding the beaten egg whites into a cake batter (who doesn't?), and licking the bowl brings back pleasant childhood memories, but I don’t like the precision of baking. Candy is especially difficult. But every Christmas, no matter how many times I have to make and remake the coffee crunch part, I make my spectacular and famous coffee crunch cake. (Well, it’s mine now—I got it from a cooking teacher from San Francisco when I first started catering, Jack Lirio. He got it from Marie Summer’s who probably got it from Blum's.)

Not all the family can get together on the same day, because there are several other families within our family. So now I have to make two cakes, because it’s just not Christmas without the coffee crunch cake. (Frozen toasted meringue lemon torte is the other dessert I traditionally make. I’ll put the recipe on the website but it requires great love and dedication to produce this torte and after this week’s experience I think I’ll try something else next year.)

Most sponge cakes are dry, so when I presented my cake to a famous retired restaurant critic one time she came to one Christmas dinner, she said: “Great. Now you’re going to give us some dried-out sponge cake.” I watched her take the first bite and swoon. She said the airy lightness made it melt in her mouth and the chewiness of coffee crunch made for a delightful finish. It really is deceptively light, though you frost it with one quart of heavy cream. In the recipe, Jack says: “Okay, you can use 3 cups but it just won’t be as fabulous!”

The process is not as hard as it appears. I make the coffee crunch a day or two ahead and put it in a tightly sealed container, then bake the cake one day before the event and put it together in the afternoon before the dinner party.

Want to hear the menu for both Christmas days? We’ve adopted the Italian way of serving seven dishes, only we do about thirteen. Many of our guests bring something wonderful. For Christmas Eve’s open house, Anne Mendelson, my co-writer and friend, makes tuna poke; Arthur Schwartz, the food maven, is bringing bacala salad; my son Aaron’s contribution is ceviche and crab tostadas; my daughter Marissa and her husband Manu bring fresh oysters and my favorite fish in vinegar. And I am making red chile tamales and gravlax!

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Christmas Day is prime rib time. We always make the same menu: puree of various roots, a orange, red onion and Stilton cheese salad; sautéed greens and my daughter-in-law Victoria’s Christmas pudding.

Not very Mexican, but we eat Mexican food every day and Christmas in only two days!



The Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have a 10-inch angel food tin for this. This is a center tube, loose bottom cake tin with the outside diameter of the top opening measuring 10 inches and with sides approximately. 4 3/8 inches high. Do not butter the tin. It is critical that when you "hang" the cake after baking, it must stick to the tin and not fall out. For hanging, you can use a wine bottle with a plastic band on the top neck that keeps the hanging cake tin from tilting.

Sift together into the bowl of an electric mixer:

1-1/4 cups cake flour (sift to measure)

3/4 cup sugar

Make a well in the center of the flour-sugar mixture and place in it:

6 yolks

1/4 cup cold water

Grated zest or rind of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon salt

Mix together then beat to the ribbon stage. You can use a Kitchen Aid mixer with the balloon whip and set the speed at low/moderate or #4 out of 10 settings. It will take 8 or 10 minutes. Transfer batter to a large bowl then wash the mixer bowl well and place in it:

1 cups whites (7 or 8, with absolutely NO yolks) 

1 tsp. cream of tartar (optional)

Using balloon whip at low/moderate speed, beat to soft peaks. Sprinkle in, one tablespoon a time:

3/4 cup sugar

while continuing to beat. When all sugar is in, beat mixture to stiff peaks.. It is important that the whites be beaten to the proper stiffness so don't stint on this. Fold 1/3 the whites into the yolk mixture, then fold in the balance. Pour the batter into the tube pan. With a thin knife, gently cut through the batter to break any air bubbles. Put into preheated 350¡F oven and bake 45 to 50 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. The cake should rise to an inch or two above the rim. Sometimes it cracks or develops furrows. Immediately invert the pan over the thin necked bottle. Let the cake cool suspended. When cool, ideally the cake will have shrunk level with the rim of the pan. Carefully cut around sides and remove the cake from tin. If not using right away, freeze until the day before serving.

Coffee Crunch:

Use a 4-1/2 quart heavy saucepan for this, although a smaller one will do. Have a jelly roll pan ready or some other baking sheet with sides to receive the hot caramelized crunch. It is not necessary to grease the pan. Into the saucepan put:

1-1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup strong coffee (use 'brewed' coffee, not instant)

1/4 cup light corn syrup

Bring to a boil slowly, stirring now and then to help dissolve sugar. After it reaches the boil and the sugar has dissolved, do not stir anymore. Put heat to high and boil until mixture reaches 290 degrees on a candy thermometer. You may have to put on mitts and tilt the pan to get a reading. Remove from heat and let boiling subside for just a few seconds then add:

1 tablespoon sifted baking soda

Sprinkle it over then beat long enough to really distribute the soda well. This will froth up and start to swell like a weird blob. Immediately scrape out onto the jelly roll pan. Do not spread it out. Just leave it in one big lump. As it cools it will shrink. When cool, remove from sheet then crack into 3 or 4 pieces and put into a plastic bag right away or it will get gooey. It keeps well out of the air for many weeks.

To Assemble: Slice the cake into three layers using a saw bladed knife. 4 cups heavy whipping cream (could use 3, but not as fabulous) Whip until very stiff, but perhaps not quite so stiff as for piping with a pastry bag.

Fold in:

2 teaspoon vanilla

Sprinkle over:

2 teaspoons instant coffee

Fold in well. Break up the coffee crunch saving enough rather large, quarter-sized pieces to cover the top of the cake. Crush the rest into a combination of fine and 1/4 inch coarse crumbs. Place the bottom layer on an attractive cake plate. Spread the whipped cream over the cake slice making a generous layer of cream about 1/2 inch thick. Sprinkle with some of the finer crumbs. Add the second layer then repeat cream and crunch crumbs. Place the top layer on. Cover top and sides (can even fill in the hole if you like) with the remaining cream then use the finer crunch and smaller pieces on the sides and finish the top with the larger pieces. Cover the whole cake very well top and sides with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until the next day.

To Serve: Can serve chilled right from refrigerator, but I prefer to bring it out to room temperature one half hour before serving. Unwrap as soon as you remove it from the refrigerator. Use a saw bladed knife to serve this.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

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